The destination for history

The sinking of Hitler’s battleship Tirpitz


‘Last night’s raid successful. Tirpitz sunk.’ On 13 November 1944, this announcement at No 5 Bomber Group’s staff conference signalled the end of four and a half years of air effort by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm.

The 52,000 tons armoured German battleship with 15in guns capable of 22.4 miles range and capable of 34 knots had been under attack since 10 July 1940.  Almost 400 bombers, torpedo-bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft had been involved, independent of two audacious raids by Royal Navy charioteers and midget submariners. 

Dubbed ‘the beast’ by Winston Churchill, Tirpitz posed a major threat to allied shipping in the Atlantic and Artic convoys to the northern Soviet Union. He declared her destruction ‘of utmost importance’.

In 1940-1, Hampden, Whitley and Wellington twin-engine bombers repeatedly attacked her in Wilhelsshafen dockyard and when she moved to Kiel for sea trials in the Baltic without inflicting serious damage. Fully operational, the warship sailed for Norway in January 1942.

Located near Trondheim, a raid by four-engine Stirlings and Halifaxes on 30 January proved ‘a fiasco due to the terrible weather’. In March, Tirpitz ventured north to threaten the Soviet-bound PQ 12 convoy, failed to locate it and, returning south, narrowly avoided being sunk by FAA Albacore torpedo-bombers off Narvik. Back at Trondheim, three more times Halifaxes and Lancasters tried with 4,000lb bombs and modified mines. Yet again, ‘thick cloud over the target and mist in the valleys’ frustrated accuracy.

In July 1942, the warship sailed north again and caused havoc. Warned that Tirpitz was at sea, naval escorts with Archangel-bound PQ17 convoy were withdrawn to intercept her, leaving enemy submarines and aircraft to feast on the unprotected merchantmen: only 11 of 35 survived.

With her anti-aircraft defences being strengthened at Narvik, proposals for a daylight raid from either Hofn in Iceland or Sumburgh in the Shetlands, for either Flying Fortresses or Lancasters to attack on the way to, or on the way back from, a Soviet base, were considered but shelved.

Churchill fretted in February 1943: ‘It is a terrible thing that this prize should be waiting and no one be able to think of a way of winning it’. During that year, Tirptiz anchored in Kaa Fjord in northern Norway, ideally poised to attack the Artic convoys or break into the Atlantic. A renewed plan for Flying Fortresses to bomb the battleship both to and from a Soviet base and use by Mosquitoes of a smaller version of Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’, which shattered west German dams in May, failed to materialise. Midget submarines undoubtedly did damage, but not disable, Tirpitz in September.

Photographic reconnaissance by Spitfires, decoding of German radio messages and reports from observers on the ground built up a picture of repair progress. In March 1944, Naval Intelligence believed the warship capable of at least 18 knots with ‘an operational sortie’ possible.

The FAA now planned a major arrack and exhaustive practices were carried out on the simulated target area in Scotland. On 3 April 1944, six carriers launched 41 Barracuda bombers, accompanied by Corsair, Hellcat and Wildcat fighters to deal with flak positions on shore and hostile aircraft.

Tirpitz was caught manoeuvring out of her ‘protective cage’ for trials. The Admiralty claimed 8 certain hits (including three by 1,600 lb bombs), 5 ’probable’ and one damaging near miss. Undoubtedly, there were several hits, but no bomb penetrated the armoured deck. Three further attacks were baulked by poor weather and, in July, the enemy vessel was observed making 15-20 knots.

On 17 July another attack was launched from carriers by 44 Barracudas protected by Hellcats and Corsairs as Seafires patrolled the fleet and Swordfish guarded against submarine interference. This time a thick smokescreen prevented accurate bombing and ‘strike considered unsuccessful’. Another operation was, therefore, planned and practised. This time, Barracudas would be accompanied by Corsairs, Fireflies, Wildcats and Hellcats, Avengers drop mines close to the ship and across the entrance to the fjord. The fleet would be protected by 32 Seafires. Twice on 22 August 1944, the main attack was either aborted or cancelled due to poor visibility. On each occasion a small number of Hellcats and Fireflies hit flak positions and ineffectively dropped 500lb bombs on Tirpitz.

On 24 August another major attack took place. 33 Barracudas, each carrying a 1,600 lb bomb, 24 Corsairs and 10 Hellcats with smaller bombs, plus 10 Fireflies took off for Kaa Fjord. Eight Seafires simultaneously attacked Banak airfield, as others patrolled over the fleet. One Barracuda observer wrote: ‘The pull out of the dive in the smoke with the mountains above … stuck in my memory’. But thick smoke made accuracy difficult, two Hellcats and four Corsairs were lost, with many of the surviving aircraft extensively damaged. The Germans conceded that this was ‘undoubtedly the heaviest  and most determined (attack) so far’:  one 1,600 lb bomb did pierce the main deck without exploding.

The final, inconclusive  FAA attack occurred on 29 August: twenty-six Barracudas (each with an AP 1,600 lb bomb), two Corsairs (1,000lb AP bomb each) and three Hellcats (a 500lb bomb) with 15 Corsairs and 10 Fireflies as escort. Post-operational analysis pointed to ‘quite unreliable’ weather forecasts, different conditions over the fleet and ashore, the slowness of Barracuda bombers and the advisability of using Mosquitoes, Hellcats and Corsairs in future.

There was no naval encore, however. RAF Bomber Command now tried its luck. Lancaster bombers could carry the 12,000lb deep-penetration Tallboy bomb, effective either with a direct hit or landing beside a warship able to burrow beneath it before exploding. There was, too, the experimental JW mine, whose explosive charge would detonate on contact with a ship’s hull. If dropped a distance away, it would ‘hop’ or ‘walk’ across the sea bed until the target was detected.  Two squadrons, nos. 9 and 617 (Dambuster), had precision-bombing experience.  

The idea of using a Soviet base was revived. On the evening of 11 September, 18 9 Squadron (one forced to abort the operation) and 20 617 Squadron aircraft set off for Yagodnik airfield near Archangel in the northern USSR. A reconnaissance Mosquito would follow next day. Flying through the night across Norway, neutral Sweden and occupied Finland, the Lancasters encountered ‘isolated instances of ineffective flak’. After running into ‘considerable low cloud and rain … about 150 miles from Archangel’, map reading became ‘impossible’, and below was ‘the most desolate country imaginable – lakes, forests and swamps’. Most failed to pick up Soviet signals because they had the wrong frequency or call sign. At 0800 GMT (1100 LT) on 12 September, only 13 operational Lancasters were at Yagodnik. Others had put down in scattered locations, seven of which would be written off.  Thirty-one bombers eventually reached Yagodnik, though on the morning of 14 September five were still unserviceable. So twenty Tallboy Lancasters and six each carrying 12 JW mines were set to attack Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord from an easterly direction. The Mosquito reported unfavourable weather in the target area, which allowed the Lancaster piloted by American Lt H C Knilans USAAF to be repaired and join the force when it eventually set out the following morning, 15 September. As he prepared to board, Fg Off J A Sanders was ‘somewhat alarmed’ to be advised by a sergeant armourer not to bring back his JW mines, ‘they are set to self-destruct after fifteen hours’.

At 1255 DBST, the leading Lancaster saw Tirpitz nestling under a cliff precisely as shown on the briefing model. The initial view was rapidly obscured by a thick smoke-screen and later crews ‘saw only about 1/3rd of the ship or the superstructure only’. Several made multiple runs from different directions to seek accuracy: ‘We hadn’t put (in) all this effort … just to kill a few Norwegian fish’, one navigator remarked. No aircraft was lost, but the wrecked Lancasters were left behind, their crews being distributed between returning aircraft. One, with 11 men on board, crashed with total loss in Norway.

Back in England, it became clear that one Tallboy had severely damaged the bows and the Germans decided to move Tirpitz south to Tromso as a floating battery to deter invasion. The RAF was unaware of her parlous state and Naval Intelligence still rated her a convoy threat. Crucially, at Tromso, Tirpitz was in direct return range from bases in Scotland.

From there, shortly after midnight on 29 October, 19 617 Squadron and 20 9 Squadron Lancasters, all carrying one Tallboy, took off. A 9 Squadron aircraft returned early and two more failed to reach the target, so 36 Lancasters gathered at the rendezvous lake after crossing the Norwegian coast to attack Tirpitz. Although visibility was fine on the approach, ‘considerable low cloud (appeared) in the target area with tops at about 6,000ft totally obscuring the target’ and no hit was achieved. As one flight engineer wrote, not having sunk the warship ‘after 13 hours boring flight did not make for happy thoughts’. On their return to base, crews were informed that they would be sent back ‘again and again’ until Tirpitz was sunk.

So at midnight on 12 November, the Lancasters again prepared to leave the Moray Firth. Icy conditions prevented eight getting airborne, so 29 were to reprise the October attack. Approaching the Norwegian coast individually in darkness, ‘wonderful navigation’ allowed ‘a swarm of four-engine gnats’ to congregate at the rendezvous lake and in a ‘gin-clear sky’ make for Tirpitz. Anxious eyes scanned the horizon for fighters known to be 10 minutes flying time from the target, but none appeared. It later emerged that a communications hiatus had saved the RAF crews. A navigator reflected, ‘we were lucky to catch the enemy on a bad day’.

The terrain around the anchorage near Tromso was too flat for an effective smoke-screen and the attackers evaded flak from the warship and shore batteries: only one damaged aircraft sought refuge in Sweden, Two direct hits and one near miss accounted for Tirpitz. Churchill’s beast had at last been slain.

Looking down on the upturned hull, one aircrew member breathed: ‘Thank God for that. It’s the last time we’re going to come here’. Looking at later reconnaissance photos, a staff officer remarked: ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ (so passes away earthly glory).

By John Sweetman

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